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Stanford Summer Institute 2019

Social Media, Digital News, and Modern Politics

The internet has dramatically increased access to political information and perspectives. With the rise of Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, and Weibo, individuals can readily share their favorite stories with hundreds of contacts. The total sum of online political content we read is claimed to be more diverse than ever before—but is that really true? This course examines the theory and practice of politics in this new digital world.

The first aim of this course is to investigate how the rise of digital media influences the behavior of the key players—candidates, journalists, and voters—as well as the institutional arrangements and political incentives that confront them. We will answer questions such as: How is the internet changing the way we understand our ideologies and politics? How does the way we receive news and information shape our sense of what politics is and what its goals are? How do politicians leverage this new digital media to capture our attention? What does this mean for governing a nation? The second aim of the course is to leverage the 2018, and upcoming 2020, U.S. election campaigns as a "laboratory" for testing these theories about the behavior of journalists, candidates, and voters. We will ask: What patterns do we see in the way the social media platforms deliver and filter political news? Does journalistic sensationalism affect political behavior and ideologies? Do algorithms used by social media platforms influence what news we see and read? How do successful candidates leverage Facebook, Twitter, and other media?

We will discuss research about digital media culture, the effects of campaigns on voter behavior, and the long-term consequences of digital politics on civil society. Students will take part in debates over the role that digital media plays in our formation of political opinions, and discuss methods to become responsible, literate, and active consumers of online political news. The course will culminate in a self-designed final project (a presentation or short paper) that will address the topic of digital political news and information.

Syllabus and Sign-Up Sheets

You can access the course syllabus here, and all sign-up sheets here .

Lecture 1: Introduction & The Changing Face of Digital Life and News

Session Objectives

  • Overview of the course syllabus, course requirements, and the trajectory of the quarter.
  • Explain and utilize a causal inference framework to construct, discuss, and critically analyze research arguments.
  • Assess how changes in digital media access, market penetration, and platform preferences have influenced communication and interactions.
  • Discuss how to develop formal research answers using causal inference framework, in accordance with course expectations.
  • Discuss how Directed Acyclic Graphs work, and how they display dependent, independent, and moderating variables.

Lecture 2: The New Media Marketplace

Session Objectives

  • Assess how changes in news media format, regulatory limitations, and market incentives have influenced the delivery of news.
  • Explain and utilize a causal inference framework to construct, discuss, and critically analyze research arguments.
  • Assess how trends in media content (print, radio, television and digital) have influenced news consumption.
  • Discuss the premises, and difference among, several formal models of media coverage and journalistic processes.

Lecture 3: What Gets Covered, & How (And Why it Matters)

Session Objectives

  • Assess how the content and quality of digital content has shifted over time, taking specific care to discuss journalistic standards and subjectivity/objectivity.
  • Engage with concepts of Agenda-Setting and implicative factors such as Priming and Framing.
  • Assess how citizens' engagement with political content on social media is influenced by what and how digital media addresses events.
  • Explain and utilize a causal inference framework to construct, discuss, and critically analyze research arguments.

Lecture 4: The Digitally Divided Civil Society

Session Objectives

  • Define selective exposure using research literature and conceptual examples from modern media.
  • Discuss the Attentive-Public, Issue-Public, and Polarization hypotheses, described in Iyengar (2007), using the causal inference framework.
  • Analyze the core findings of Bakshy, et al (2015) and Hindman (2011).
  • Assess the argument that the rise of digital media influenced selective exposure and media consumption.
  • Explain and utilize a causal inference framework to construct, discuss, and critically analyze research arguments.

Lecture 5: Do Digital Divides Harm Civil Society & Reasoning?

Session Objectives

  • Define polarization among elites, and assess common measurements used to compute elite polarization.
  • Present and evaluate three theories about the influence of elite polarization on mass public polarization.
  • Analyze the core assumptions and frameworks of Lynch (2016) and Sunstein (2007) regarding how polarization influences civil society, public goods provisions, private interactions, and reasoning.
  • Engage with modern research and analysis on the influence of polarization on gridlock and moral framing
  • Explain and utilize a causal inference framework to construct, discuss, and critically analyze research arguments.

Lecture 6: The Regulation Debate

Session Objectives

  • Assess the historical trends and themes in the history of regulation and the creation of the internet.
  • Present and evaluate two common perspectives regarding the utility and appropriateness of regulation in the digital media sector.
  • Analyze the core assumptions and frameworks of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty", specifically noting the Harm Principle and steep justifications for prohibition.
  • Analyze the core assumptions and frameworks of Sunstein (2007) "On Regulation, A Plea", discussing the current prolificness of regulation in the digital media sphere.
  • Engage with modern legal research and analysis on regulation and rights to speech online.
  • Explain and utilize a causal inference framework to construct, discuss, and critically analyze research arguments.

Lecture 8: Rhetoric, Hate Speech, & Technological Solutions

Session Objectives

  • Assess the historical and philosophical debates concerning the definition and ethicality of rhetoric.
  • Present and evaluate the core assumptions and frameworks of Plato's the "Gorgias", in which he argues that rhetoric functions as a manipulating and corrupting force that often leads to demagoguery and persuasion.
  • Analyze the core assumptions and frameworks of Aristotle's "Rhetoric", specifically noting his belief that rhetoric is value neutral, and that demagoguery indicates concerns regarding institutions rather than rhetoric.
  • Discuss the frameworks of Coll (2018) and Laub (2019), addressing their solutions to, and their proposed origins of, social problems including hate-speech.
  • Discuss the legal limitations and vagueness regarding definitions of hate-speech.
  • Engage with modern legal research and analysis on hate-speech, regulation and rights to speech online.
  • Explain and utilize a causal inference framework to construct, discuss, and critically analyze research arguments.

Lecture 9: The Role of Truth & Knowledge Online

Session Objectives

  • Assess the historical and philosophical debates concerning the definition and ethicality of two key terms: heresthetics and manipulation.
  • Discuss the frameworks of Riker (1986) "The Art of Political Manipulation", discussing heresthetics and the ways that it can leverage rhetoric and agenda-setting.
  • Present and evaluate the core assumptions and frameworks of Lynch's chapter, "Truth, Lies, and Social Media", addressing his proposed origins of social problems including misinformation online.
  • Discuss the frameworks of Mills (1995), addressing her definition of manipulation, and her theory regarding the moral implications of it.  
  • Discuss the frameworks of Allcott and Gentzkow (2017), specifically assessing their theoretical framework and analytical approach..
  • Engage with modern legal research and analysis on hate-speech, regulation and rights to speech online.
  • Explain and utilize a causal inference framework to construct, discuss, and critically analyze research arguments.

Lecture 10: You Won't Believe What Everyone is Saying About Clickbait!!!

Session Objectives

  • Assess the cheap talk model, specifically addressing the implications of information transmission and information quality .
  • Discuss the frameworks of Frankfurt (1986) famous essay, discussing "humbug" and the ways that it devalues and ignores truth.
  • Present and evaluate the core assumptions and frameworks of Scacco and Muddiman (2016), addressing the definition of clickbait, headline types, and the effects on reader responses.
  • Discuss the frameworks of Munger et al (2018), addressing their new definition of emotional clickbait, and who is most likely to consume it.  
  • Discuss the frameworks of Douglas (2017), addressing the literature on the social psychology motivations of conspiracy consumption.
  • Engage with modern discourse on critical thinking in social media, and how to receive information responsibly and carefully online.
  • Explain and utilize a causal inference framework to construct, discuss, and critically analyze research arguments.

Lecture 11: Writing Workshop

Session Objectives

  • Explain and utilize a causal inference framework to construct, discuss, and critically analyze research arguments.
  • Present a variety of writing tools and resources for students to better their writing.
  • Discuss qualitative and empirical research paper format and writing styles.
  • Explore the research norms surrounding the creation of a paper introduction and literature review.
  • Generate research topics and short proposal plans.